April 27 2005 12:00 AM

Amid an orgy of criticism, Mayor Dick Murphy yoinks himself

With San Diego's future seeming darker with each passing week, it's been clear to many observers for several months now that Mayor Dick Murphy had a decision to make. He could either dig in his heels in hopes of surviving a coalescing recall challenge or resign. Yet it was hard to find anyone who didn't at least feign surprise Monday when they learned that Murphy hade made his choice, creating national headlines by announcing his resignation as of July 15.

“I now believe to be effective the city will need a mayor elected by a solid majority of the voters and with a clear mandate,” Murphy, surrounded by solemn family members and staffers, told a crowded room full of journalists and onlookers. The mayor called for a “fresh start” for the city.

But Murphy's latest attempt to swing the city's fortunes has observers and some of his own City Council colleagues groaning. Some question whether the time frame laid out in Monday's announcement will create additional problems for a city government already beleaguered by a pension scandal, delayed financial audits, a resulting inability to borrow money and a budget shortfall, as well as a looming deadline for a transition to a new form of government.

Chief among those newly created concerns is an impending battle among City Council members over how to fill Murphy's vacancy. A seemingly split City Council will soon have to choose whether to force a special election or appoint an individual to complete Murphy's term. Councilmembers Scott Peters and Toni Atkins say they fear a special election will bring with it the added distraction of a divisive campaign that might feature one-third of the sitting City Council (Donna Frye and Brian Maienschein have already indicated they will run for mayor in a special election and Peters is mulling a run) as well as a host of other contenders at a time when the City Council desperately needs to focus on solving the city's problems.

But there's also a great deal of uncertainty about the role Murphy will play during the 12 weeks that remain until his last day in office. At Monday's news conference, the mayor announced that he plans to stay on primarily to wrap up labor negotiations and the budget process, which, by law, must be completed by late June.

“If it were up to me and he wanted to resign on the 15th of July, I think he should have announced on the first of July,” Peters said, adding that considering Murphy's low-key style of governance, he doesn't think it really makes much of a difference. “Mostly he's just another vote,” Peters said, noting that Murphy will still bring his opinion as an experienced politician and former judge, which Peters says he values, to City Council meetings.

“I think people listen to what he has to say.”

But City Councilmember Toni Atkins told CityBeat she doesn't think she will be able to look to the mayor for leadership.

“I think that he has precluded himself from being that person,” she said. “With all due respect to the mayor... he has pretty much rendered himself even less of a leader than people have been saying to date.

“He's just given his leverage away.... I know that he's trying to do the right thing and the best thing, but I think he has rendered himself pretty powerless,” she said. “I think he's just put himself in an impossible position to be the mayor even in the next several months.”

Frye agrees. “He basically said, ‘I don't want to be a part of this city government anymore,' so it's very difficult to sort of weigh the thought process of a person who has said, ‘I don't want to do this anymore, I don't want to be here,'” Frye said. “So when someone says that to you, their input and their comments are probably not going to carry as much weight as someone who does want to participate and does want to be a part of the government and does want to make things work.”

Others supported the mayor's decision to stay on until July as the responsible way to provide stability and a transition, although there seem to be competing views as to how Murphy will impact the labor negotiations and budget process.

“He's running the meetings and he's running the closed sessions when the direction is being given to the city's management team for the labor negotiations, and he's really chairing the council meeting discussions of the budget, so mayors can have a lot of influence on the process,” said former City Manager Jack McGrory. “But he has chosen not to really exercise that much, and I don't think he is going to at this point, either.”

But Donald Cohen, executive director of the think tank Center for Policy Initiatives and a union insider, was more optimistic, saying he thinks the mayor's delayed departure may help hold off a potentially divisive campaign until budget and labor issues can be resolved, and at the very least, it eliminates the distraction of a recall attempt, he said.

“He's going to stay there, but he's taking his future off of the table, so he may actually be able to get something done,” Cohen said. “If you don't have to run for office and you're not worried about everybody attacking you every day, maybe you can actually just get to business. All he has to do is vote and run meetings, so maybe this will free him up to make the hard choices.”

Norma Damashek, vice president of public policy with San Diego's League of Women Voters, said Murphy's official explanation for wanting to stay until July seems to jibe with the political reality of the situation.

“He's only one vote and he doesn't have any clout,” Damashek said. “There's a piece missing and we don't know what it is yet.”

Speculation about what exactly that missing piece might be was rampant among political insiders who eagerly posited a grander-than-stated scheme behind Murphy's resignation.

One of the first rumors to surface holds that Murphy's resignation was part of a larger plot hatched between labor and business interests to maintain the status quo. According to that theory, Murphy supposedly agreed to stay on long enough to look after the unions' interests in the upcoming labor negotiations in return for labor's promise to shift its support from Frye to Peters, a business-friendly Democrat, in an upcoming special election or appointment process. As part of the deal, Murphy would take the post of deputy mayor from City Councilmember Michael Zucchet, whose federal corruption trial starts next week, and name Peters the new deputy mayor.

“That is wild speculation of a rumor mill on steroids,” said Cohen.

If there's a conspiracy afoot involving Peters, no one has bothered to tell Peters himself.

“I always laugh when people give Dick Murphy credit for maybe having some kind of political genius,” he said. “If you look at how he's managed this whole situation over the past year you have to say his political skills are-well, he's not going to be invited to give seminars on political skills.”

Even Frye said that rumor sounds a little far fetched, but she doesn't rule anything out.

“If in December someone said, ‘The mayor is going to resign in a few months-does that sound far-fetched?' I would have said yes,” she said.

McGrory said he thinks Murphy's resignation was more likely the result of a preemptive strike by a business community spooked by the possibility of a recall challenge and the likelihood that Frye would win outright in a recall election.

“She will have a much harder time winning if it's a one-on-one situation in a final-two runoff.”


See all events on Friday, Sep 30